On Friday evening, the United States decided to push ahead with the sale and delivery of eight U.S.-made F-16 Block-52 fighters to Pakistan in a deal valued at $699 million. The U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) notified U.S. lawmakers about the deal. The DSCA’s approval comes days after Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, expressed concern to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that the Obama administration should withhold such a deal due to concerns that Pakistan was insufficiently targeting militant groups hostile to the United States, specifically the Haqqani Network. U.S. legislators have a 30 day period to review and potentially block the sale. Corker’s hold on the funding could end the deal unless Pakistan manages to find an alternate way to finance the purchase.
“We support the proposed sale of eight F-16s to Pakistan, which we view as the right platform to in support of Pakistan’s counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations,” a DSCA official told Defense News. In addition to eight F-16 Block 52 fighters, the deal will include increased performance engines, advanced radars, electronic warfare equipment, and spare and repair parts. In its official notice, the DSCA noted that the “proposed sale contributes to U.S. foreign policy objectives and national security goals by helping to improve the security of a strategic partner in South Asia.” Between 2002 and 2014, the United States sold $5.4 billion in defense equipment to Pakistan.
Progress on this deal has thrust the U.S.-Pakistan relationship back into the limelight, highlighting concerns of Pakistan’s complicated status as a U.S. ally. Additionally, the deal has drawn concern and criticism from the Indian government, which is increasingly partnering with the United States itself on defense cooperation. Vikas Swarup, a spokesperson for the Indian foreign ministry, posted a statement on Twitter:
We are disappointed at the decision of the Obama Administration to notify the sale of F-16 aircrafts to Pakistan. We disagree with their rationale that such arms transfers help to combat terrorism. The record of last many years in this regard speaks for itself.
New Delhi’s concern is that the F-16 aircraft will be diverted away from counter-terrorism purposes and toward striking India in any future skirmish between the two countries. The DSCA, in its notification to Congress, assess that “The proposed sale of this equipment and support will not alter the basic military balance in the region.”
In 2014, after Pakistan acquired surplus Jordanian F-16s, a Pakistan Air Force officer said that the fighters were being used for “law enforcement” operations on the country’s western border. “We are not using [attack] helicopters, but are using F-16s to stop the terrorists,” he said, according to an IHS Jane’s 360 report.
Nadeem Hotiana, a spokesperson for the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, told Foreign Policy magazine that Corker’s “insinuations” that Pakistan is “facilitating the destabilizing role of Haqqani network in Afghanistan in any way are indeed unfortunate.” “We understand that the deal has not been blocked, but there are reservations regarding the financial aspect,” he added.
Corker’s concerns about the appropriateness of the sale are not new. U.S. lawmakers and even the state department have expressed concerns that Pakistan’s ongoing military operation against domestic terrorists along its border with Afghanistan, known as Operation Zarb-e-Azb, is overlooking Haqqani network targets. Last year, the U.S. State Department suggested that a $300 million reimbursement tranche of Coalition Support Fund (CSF) payments–a program through which the United States reimburses Pakistan for its efforts in fighting terrorism–would be withheld. (CSF reimbursements continued, despite the initial reservations.)